BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Lives in "interesting times" ...

It's been a very long time since I've read much of any fiction … and especially “popular” fiction (as opposed to “classics” which are nominally fiction, but are filling holes in my over-all English Major reading list), but that “fluff” element in my to-be-read piles has migrated to the memoir. I was at the dollar store last month and found a nice hard-cover “deckle edge” edition of Susan Conley's The Foremost Good Fortune on the shelf, and was amazed to find the copy that I picked up was even signed by the author (not to shabby for a buck!). This was a record of the author's time in China, having moved there with her husband and two small sons, right in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. They were relocating for her husband's job, a 2.5 year posting, and she was being uprooted from the writing workshop, literary magazine, and college seminars she'd been running back in Maine.

This would have been “interesting enough” in a fish-out-of-water sort of way, documenting all the strange new things she'd be encountering in China, but in the middle of their time in Beijing, she gets breast cancer … lending a certain pathos to the tale, and bringing in factors that would have been unlikely to have featured otherwise.

As noted above, memoirs are much like fiction, as they're stories, and unfold as the book moves on … which ends up with my not getting a lot of my little bookmarks in there (unless there are particularly gripping and/or informative things that I feel like I'll need to revisit), and I have to admit that in this case I had none … which puts me at a disadvantage for the review.

The main take-away that I had from the book was that it was a particular window into the world of modern China that isn't something that I'd typically run across. There is a substantial, and varied, international community in Beijing, with representatives from every sort of company over there to set up businesses with the Chinese. Interestingly, this seems to be largely diverse, at least in Conley's experience, as she's not hanging out with Americans, but with Europeans, and assorted Asians for the most part.

One of the key elements that is a concern there is finding a nanny to work with the kids. The author has only the most rudimentary grasp of Chinese (although she hires a tutor), and having a local helps a lot for the shopping, and communications, etc. It seems that there is enough demand for these roles that it's slim pickings, and her tales of trying to find a good match (which never ends up as “ideal”) are somewhat painful.

Her descriptions of the vast high-rise “luxury apartment” complexes which have been built all over the capital (and other major commercial centers) is fascinating … with it being almost familiar yet very alien still. These are cheek-to-jowl with old market areas, and she could look out her windows and see a whole different world, almost a different age.

When she first discovers the cancer, she's largely at the mercy of a less-than-state-of-the-art medical establishment. A lot of the medical infrastructure is still based on Chinese traditional medicine, and this was not what she was wanting at that juncture. As things evolved, she made a number of trips back to the U.S. to have tests, and eventually surgery, done.

One of the sub-themes here is the author dealing with the psychological impact of having cancer, and the effect it was having on her two young sons. It's interesting to observe the interactions within the family, and wonder how that would have been different had that unfolded back in Maine, without the over-lay of life as a foreigner in China.

Of course, with a memoir (as opposed to a novel), one is looking at a slice of time in somebody's life … and in this case it leads to a lot of stuff simply not getting “tidied up” within the narrative. I would have liked to have more “backstory” on both her and her husband's work (frankly, I can't recall what exactly his business was that had brought them to Beijing … and his “character” was far less developed in the book than many others), to put a bit more context on how they're reacting to the various things they encounter. And, when they move back home, the story's pretty much over … naturally enough, she's writing from the midst of living her life, so can't bring things to any particular conclusion.

In the course of the story, they go on a number of road trips (they have a driver, who becomes somewhat part of the family), which allow Conley to describe many fascinating countryside vignettes, some quite striking in their differences from the “modern” lifestyle in the city. Of course, life in the city isn't always that modern … there is one bit where a homing pigeon had stunned itself hitting their windows, and their nanny/cook was very interested in getting a hold of the “plump” bird … no doubt with recipes in mind!

Again, The Foremost Good Fortune was an interesting read, primarily due to its look into a world that I'd have no other exposure to … personally, I probably would have liked the book more if it was focused on the expat experience in Beijing and China in general, but the cancer story, and the whole dynamic of dealing with small children in that environment, are probably more its raison d'être.

As I've often noted, it surprises me to find books that are in the dollar stores still in the major channels, but this is still being offered at nearly full price by the on-line big boys, and, having only come out in 2011, it might still be available in the brick-and-mortar stores. However, being in the dollar store channel, it's available for a penny (plus shipping) via the new/used vendors. This is certainly not something that I would have even considered “at retail”, but it's an agreeable read for a buck.

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Tags: book review
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